Vermonters for Better Education

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July 23, 2001 Vol. 1, No. 18

Covering education news in Vermont and beyond...
Informative, provocative, unique...
Published by Vermonters for Better Education 

VBE is a nonprofit, nonpartisan organization whose mission is to enlist parents and the public at large in achieving quality educational opportunities for all the children of Vermont by monitoring the state of education in Vermont; promoting the value of educational freedoms for all parents; and giving parents the evaluative tools with which to identify excellence. Libby Sternberg, executive director: MAILTO:LSternberg@aol.com



At a July 17 news conference in Montpelier, Ethan Allen Institute President John McClaughry introduced a voucher proposal as a "worthy replacement for Act 60." Called Schoolchildren First (available at http://www.ethanallen.org), it sets up what amounts to a statewide voucher system in order to fulfill the obligations of the Brigham decision which set the stage for an overhaul of Vermont's education financing four years ago.

The following is from the EAI's press release on the proposal:

"Vermont parents want high quality education for their children.

"They want and they deserve the opportunity to choose an education that gives their children the skills to be productive and secure in a rapidly changing world economy. They want an educational system that builds character and moral values, and equips young people to be contributing citizens in their communities.

"The goal of this report is to expand high quality educational opportunity for all of Vermont's children.

"To achieve that goal, this report proposes to shift the focus of education policy from "schools" to "schoolchildren". It would for the first time empower all the parents of all of Vermont's children to choose the kind of education that they believe is best for their children.

"Everyone's child is different. Some thrive in a disciplined environment. Some do better with student-centered learning. Some prefer traditional subject matter. Some prefer a curriculum built around a theme, such as art, music, science, community service, or work opportunities. Some want moral and religious values integrated with their schoolwork.

"When parents can make the choices for their children, they will become more involved in their children's education than if those choices are made for them by the government.

"For 132 years parents in 90 Vermont towns have had a choice of schools for their children to attend. In those towns parents can send their children to any public or independent school, in or out of the state, except for sectarian schools.

"Schoolchildren First proposes to expand that educational choice system to all parents and all children in all towns of the state. It also proposes a tax credit mechanism that will generate private contributions to underwrite scholarships for pupils wishing to attend faith-based schools not now eligible to receive public tuition payments.

"Schoolchildren First proposes no major departure in school financing. There is no magic pot of money that will allow the repeal of the state property taxes. The report does propose to eliminate one of the two present state property taxes - the so-called sharing pool - by increasing the other state property tax. Much as the Ethan Allen Institute would like to reduce the dependence on the property tax for the support of education, there appears to be no feasible way of doing so. This plan will undoubtedly cost less over time than Act 60, but probably not a lot less.

"What about 'local control?' 'Local control' in education means to most Vermonters that local taxpayers vote local taxes to pay for local education. The Supreme Court put an end to that era with its Brigham decision. Never mind the accounting methods; the fact is that all the funds for education are now levied by the state, and disbursed by the state. Act 60 is leading the state into creating One Big School System, with 100,000 kids scattered over 9200 square miles. Managing such a system is possible, but it would not be good for Vermont's kids.

"Schoolchildren First recognizes that the state will continue to levy all the taxes to support education. It proposes that instead of the state paying out the funds to 251 captive local school districts, the state pay the funds out to parents to enable them to choose the educational opportunities they think are best for their children. It replaces the disappearing 'local control' at the town level with real 'local control' at the family level.

"Why all this now? Because as the report describes, Act 60 is steadily running aground. Without the annual $36 million sharing pool subsidy (voted by the legislature in each of the past three years), support for Act 60 will steadily dwindle. The current business slowdown, plus the escalating fiscal demands of the Medicaid program, mean that there is not likely to be any surplus to bail out Act 60 in years to come.

"It's time for Vermonters to find a replacement for Act 60. Schoolchildren First is a well-conceived replacement. It does not, and can not, take us back to the pre-Brigham era. It does offer a plan that will be better for children, better for parents, better for enterprising educators both public and independent, yet not more expensive than Act 60. Ten years after implementing Schoolchildren First, I believe Vermont's new education system will be an envied model for the nation."


The following is the statement issued by VBE Executive Director (and editor of this newsletter) Libby Sternberg on July 17:

"Vermonters for Better Education promotes the value of educational freedom for all parents. Therefore, we strongly support the Ethan Allen Institute's proposed parental choice plan as outlined in EAI's 'Schoolchildren First' proposal.

"Specifically, we are pleased to see the acknowledgement of the positive power of choice on all schools through 'provider competition.' It is high time that competition be viewed as an ally in school improvement, not an enemy. Several prestigious studies by well-respected economics researchers have proved this point. A June 2001 U.S. Department of Education report on the impact of charter schools on public schools recently underscored this principle.

"When parents have the ability to make more choices, schools change.

"Vermonters are fortunate that the state's schools are not afflicted with some of the dreadful problems that beset inner city schools across the country. Nonetheless, we pay a great deal for schools that, in many cases, can only be described as mediocre. Opening our school system to increased competition will serve to improve these schools and the children they serve.

"More importantly, opening our school system to more meaningful choice would fulfill the promise of equal educational opportunity embedded in the Brigham decision when the justices wrote that something as important as educational opportunity should not be controlled by 'the mere fortuity of a child's residence.'"


The ink was hardly dry on the news reports about EAI's voucher proposal when three ultra-liberal state senators held a press conference denouncing it. At the press conference, held on July 19 in Montpelier, Sen. Cheryl Rivers (D-Windsor), said, "That kind of proposal for low income people I would describe as fool's gold. The best hope for low income people for equal educational opportunity is universal public education and that we have excellence for all."

Sen. Richard McCormack (D-Windsor), joined his colleague by saying, "This is a report …that sounds like what is a very powerful national movement to dismantle public education."

Finally, Sen. Peter Shumlin (D-Windham), chimed in, "I think that we've made the mistake in the past of not responding when proposals are put forward that undermine public education which I see as the foundation of democracy."

As was noted in last week's VER, Senator Shumlin himself was educated in an exclusive private school which makes his statement about public schools being the "foundation of democracy" curious at best.

EAI President John McClaughry responded to these criticisms by pointing out that his proposal actually estimates that from 80 to 90 percent of Vermont's students would continue to attend public schools under his plan. "The difference will be that those government schools would no longer be able to exist by extracting money from taxpayers. They would have to earn their budgets by satisfying consumers in the marketplace, like any other service business."

"The result would be competition among many kinds of schools, and the public schools that compete will be stronger and more parent- and child-friendly than today's monopoly public schools.

"Citizens should see through the smokescreen predictably created by politicians whose political interests are tied to the current government monopoly educational establishment, notably the Vermont NEA, the teachers union.

"The real issue for Vermonters is, which is more important: 'Schools First,' or 'Schoolchildren First?' The Ethan Allen Institute proposes the latter…"



Associated Press reporters Larry Margasak and John Solomon released details of coordinated activities during the 1996 campaign that reveal the NEA and AFL-CIO had virtual veto power over the election strategy of the Democratic Party. One internal Democratic National Committee memo read: "When the DNC and its National partners including... the AFL-CIO and the NEA (National Education Association) agree on the contents of a plan, each national partner will give their funding commitment to the state." Democratic Party officials from across the country routinely submitted their budgets and programs to union officials for approval and funding. "For aspects of campaigns we subsidize, I think we would want veto power," admitted AFL-CIO General Counsel John Hiatt. The AP story states that John Wilson, current NEA executive director, served on the management committee that handled day- to-day operations of Democratic campaigns in North Carolina while he was executive director of the North Carolina Association of Educators.

--from Mike Antonucci's Education Intelligence Agency.


by Libby Sternberg

Whenever I hear someone stand up and pompously declare that public schools are the backbone of our democracy, I have to admit I get a little riled.

Don't they realize that private schools have a longer history in American life? That they have played just as important a role as public schools in shaping civic values, tolerance, and a sense of democracy?

Adding to my irritation on this topic is voucher critics' seeming ignorance of the true history and role of the common (or public) school in American life. Common schools were started in America for two reasons: to educate future citizens, yes, but also to blanche what were perceived as threatening views from new immigrants. Mostly these views had to do with religion.

The new public schools themselves were not religion-free zones in the 1800s. In fact, the term "nonsectarian" as applied to schools did not originally mean "non-religious." It meant "nondenominational Protestant." (For an excellent history of public and private schools in America, see Lloyd Jorgenson's, "The State and the Non-Public School," University of Missouri Press, 1987).

While other countries built systems of educational choice, xenophobic Americans brought forth a system where kids were virtually shut out of anything but publicly-controlled schools - schools where they learned the dominant Protestant culture (including Bible-reading, praying, and hymn-singing).

Even if we were to ignore the distasteful history of the public school's birth, we're still left with the question: are private schools undemocratic? Do they not instill civic values in their students?

The answer is a resounding rebuttal to critics' claims. According to several recent studies, private schools actually do a better job at teaching tolerance, of promoting civic values, and of imbuing in students a sense of our democratic traditions.

This shouldn't surprise anyone in Vermont. After all, the Green Mountain State has been home to a 132-year-old voucher program in its 90 tuition towns. In these towns, students get to choose their schools, public or private, and the state and town pick up the tab.

Does this system undermine democracy or a sense of community? No, town clerks in the dozen or so towns with no school at all report that the focal point in their communities is exactly what it should be: Town Meeting Day.

Has this system led to undemocratic "fringe" schools? No, the Vermont Department of Education has a hard time even remembering the last time they had to yank "approved" status from a private school in the state.

Has this system led to an undemocratic "stratification" along socioeconomic lines? No, not if rural St. Johnsbury and more populous Rutland are used as a guide. In these two regions, opportunity, not stratification, is the key word.

For example, kids at the lower end of the socioeconomic scale have access to a private school (St. Johnsbury Academy) they otherwise wouldn't be able to afford. Meanwhile, in the Rutland area, kids on the upper end of the socioeconomic scale end up overwhelmingly choosing a public school (Rutland High) whose "captive" student body is comprised of children of less affluent backgrounds.

Those who continue to raise false alarms about vouchers and school choice proposals need to look closely at what they are really saying. In essence, their message is this: You can have school choice, folks. But only if you have the money.

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Do you want to share your views concerning school choice and the EAI voucher proposal? Consider the letters-to-the-editor pages of your local newspaper. Click here for a list of newspapers with contact information.

The VERMONT EDUCATION REPORT is published by Vermonters for Better Education 170 Church Street, Rutland, VT 05701, 802.773.5240 Contact Lsternberg@aol.com for more information.

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